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Subject: Loss compensation

Loss compensation

From: James Hay <james_hay>
Date: Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Frank Hassard <f.hassard [at] tiscali__co__uk> writes

>I'm interested in learning more about different approaches to
>loss-compensation in furniture and decorative arts conservation. ...

I certainly expect that there will not be unanimity concerning this
issue, but here's to Frank Hassard for bringing this important
concern forward for discussion, yet again, but now in the 21st
Century. Somewhat in flux, are we?

If we are talking about a loss of wood where the furniture has a
transparent finish, my opinion is that a loss of wood should be
replaced with wood, so far as, and whenever, possible. If the loss
from the furniture is marble or metal or glass, there is more wiggle
room for finding a replacement material, so far as replacing like
with like. I must admit that I begin to weave with nausea at the
sight of expanses of modern plastics replacing losses of wood in
furniture. If the introduced bits are so well disguised that I
cannot distinguish them from two meters distance, then I can live
comfortably with their existence. Seeing the alternative, that is, a
repair or replacement that draws attention to itself, makes me feel
that such a repair is screaming for my attention, which distracts
from my overall appreciation of the object itself. With a modicum of
skill, perseverance, knowledge, and patience, and the occasional
reliance on modern adhesives, losses in wooden furniture can usually
be filled with wood, so we're not setting unrealistic hopes.

I figure a piece of furniture or decorative art has a story to tell,
all by itself, and any repair has to be done in service to the story
presented by the object. Museologically, there can be other stories
to be told by an object besides simply the story of its creation and
life in service, in which any repair, or lack of repair, can play a
big role. Even when the repair is as important as is the object, the
repair shouldn't take over the entire story. One example: in an
Embassy mansion in Paris, France, I saw a hole in a mirror caused by
a musket ball. The hole, and resulting cracking in the mirror, dated
from one of the revolutions in the 19th century. The hole was
perhaps 6 cm in diameter, whereas the mirror was 2 m wide and 3 m
high. Staff had purposely not replaced the broken mirror, which was
on the wall behind an amazing, high style, gilt state bed, precisely
because the defect illuminated the history of the mansion, the city,
and the course of Western Civilization. The pieces of glass were
safely restrained and stable enough just as they were, nestled
against the wall between footboard and headboard of the elaborate,
heavily draped bed. Reflect on that choice!

And there is a world of gilt and painted wooden furniture, where no
one can see the wood beneath the surface finish. Still, I think that
any loss of wood should be made good with wood, even if no one can
see the substrate material. Casting and moulding with modern
materials makes economic sense, where economics must dominate the
decision. But we do not live by bread alone.

I witnessed the dismay, disappointment, and eventually disgust, felt
by a member of Canada's First Nations, when he touched for the first
time a full sized, fibreglass cast of a "totem" or crest pole,
having thought it was made of wood. It was not a reaction I could
have predicted. The cast of a pole was a fully artistic piece of
work, completely convincing at arm's length, every nuance of colour
neatly and nicely applied, and little bits of real lichen and
freeze-dried, budding sprouts glued on. This pole was a piece of
exhibit dressing that went way beyond what is meant by--close enough
for TV. But the effect that this pole had on him was profound. He
experienced for the first time a pole made entirely of plastic, and
he thought someone had played him a nasty trick. The effect was
similar to what you might expect if you had invited him to your home
for a home-cooked dinner, and then offered him food direct from a
can. There is a difference in aroma, flavour, texture, and
ultimately, authenticity, between one and the other.

The difference is as indefinable, and yet as unmistakable, as the
difference between cheeses. I've met a number of artists from the
Northwest Coast who carve wood, and real totem poles are only carved
from Western Red Cedar logs, and that's all there is to it. Any
other material, and it isn't a real pole. Certainly it's something,
but it's something else. The material choice is crucial.

I feel the same way about wooden furniture and decorative art. As a
lapsed Presbyterian, I don't expect that I can gain any particular
traction with others by claiming that moral, cultural, and religious
reasons ground my dislike for using anything but wood to replace
losses in wooden furniture. Whatever anyone else may think about the
subject, that's the way I feel about it. Barring bizarre and unique
circumstances, wood is the only ethical choice for filling losses in
wooden furniture. Take that, whippersnappers!

James Hay
Senior Conservator
Furniture and Decorative Arts
Canadian Conservation Institute
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada


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                  Conservation DistList Instance 19:34
                Distributed: Thursday, February 2, 2006
                       Message Id: cdl-19-34-003
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Received on Wednesday, 11 January, 2006

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